Bats, Balloons and Bare-faced Lies – Fake News of the Victorian Era
Today I am thrilled to offer you this vastly entertaining and TRUE article about fake news during Victoria’s reign. This gem has been written by BG Hilton, author of Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys (Odyssey Books, Feb 2020). Reading this piece makes me go all over steam-punky.
I’m sure Bill has an old suit vest somewhere that I to which can attach lace, watch chains and goggles … Enjoy!
A guest post by BG Hilton
In the 1920s, as radio was just beginning to come into its own, the BBC had a regular news broadcast. On most days. But on one especially slow news day in 1930, an announcer declared that there simply wasn’t enough news to make up a bulletin. There followed 15 minutes of piano music.
Slow news days are something that has always affected the news media. Simply put, more newsworthy things happen on some days than others. Unlike the BBC in 1930, most news organisations don’t have the luxury of saying so. They simply have to churn out as many pages, as many minutes of content on a slow news day as on a day where everything is going berserk.
Nowadays, news outlets have ways of dealing with this. Celebrity stories, human interest pieces, extended sports coverage can all do the work of a dozen strands of hair plastered across a bald man’s head.
In Victorian times, it was a little different. Slow news days weren’t just bad for media outlets, they were bad for journalists. Very few reporters were on a salary. Almost all were freelance writers paid for how much newspaper space they could fill – often as little as a penny a line. A slow news day didn’t mean a drop in advertising revenue, it meant starvation.
And this is where fake news comes in.
People use the term ‘fake news’ to mean a lot of things – exaggerations, distortions and of course the Trumpian meaning of the term, ‘things I don’t like to hear.’ But let’s talk about fake news in the strictest sense – news stories that are completely fabricated. This could be as simple as a story that the Pope had died when in fact he had not. Otherwise, a popular news story might find itself repeated. Famous murders might be recycled with a few cosmetic changes. A favourite was story of the brutal and much-hated Austrian Marshall von Haynau who, on a visit to London, was set upon and beaten by workingmen. This was a true story – the first time it was published. According to some sections of the London press, the incident recurred more times than seems probable.
But this is the shallow end of the pool. The end that interests me is the truly bizarre stories that were passed off as fact.
Some of these fake news stories arose organically. The story of Spring-heeled Jack began as an urban myth before becoming a fake news story. Jack was a sort of ghost – or man pretending to be a ghost – or something – who threatened and even attacked people. Sometimes he breathed out a blue flame, always he evaded capture by running so fast, he seemed to have springs in his boot-heels.
Others fake news was simply created out of whole cloth. One of the most famous here is the ‘Great Moon Hoax’ of 1835, in which the New York newspaper The Sun ran a series of articles claiming that the (real) astronomer Sir John Herschel using a (fictional) super-telescope had discovered animal life on the moon. These included giant bats and beavers the size of small bears. The stories ran for several days before ending with the claim that one of Herschel’s assistants had left the lens-cap off the great telescope, which had focused the rays of the rising sun so greatly that the observatory had burnt down!
This story had an unexpected knock-on effect of irritating Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was not upset about the fake news in principle, but felt that the Sun had plagiarised some elements of its story from his works. In retaliation, he planted a news story falsely claiming that a man had crossed the Atlantic in a balloon. For once, the fake news blew up on the newspaper, and when it became clear that the balloon was non-existent, they were forced to retract.
To what extent were these and other bizarre stories believed? That, unfortunately, is a question that’s difficult to answer. Probably some people thought these stories were fact, others thought of it as entertainment. Our modern idea that the news media ideally ought to be a reasonably accurate reflection of reality did not yet exist, so publishing outlandish tales wasn’t necessarily seen as being at odds with journalistic ethics.
And perhaps there’s another angle. In the 1840s, a British journalist named Henry Mayhew interviewed a running patterer – an itinerant seller of news stories. Patterers were notorious for selling exaggerated or fraudulent stories; or even passing off old magazines as up-to-date news. But this patterer noted that his victims seldom grumbled. “It’s astonishing, how few people ever complain of having been took in. It hurts their feelings to lose a halfpenny, but it hurts their pride too much, when they’re had, to grumble in public about it.”
Gosh, I really wanted those bats to be real! They look divine. And how beautiful is the cover of BG Hilton’s steampunk novel!
Thank you so much for this great post!